Watching the #1 Kansas Jayhawks dominate Oklahoma last night was fun, but the best moment came early in the first half when ESPN announced that Cole Aldrich, Kansas' All-American Center, was the Academic All-American of the year. Cole's accomplishments on the court undoubtedly played a role in the decision, but putting up a 3.3 GPA over three years while taking a full course load and playing for arguably the premier basketball school in the country is impressive any way you slice it.
I've known Cole as long as I can remember, and I remember in sixth grade at tryouts when he towered over everyone. At that point he may have been one of the least-skilled players to ever be in the Olson Middle School gym, missing simple layups and looking awkward as he moved down the court. He still made the A-team, because, well, he was enormous, and he still played well despite not having a lot of skill. It was clear he had athletic ability, he just had never harnessed that ability into basketball skills.
Watching him play extremely well for the best team in the country is not surprising to me, though. This is a kid that certainly has had his share of obstacles to overcome since he started playing basketball, and a lot of kids in his situation would have simply given up. From the time Cole tried out in sixth grade until our season started in 8th grade, Cole worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. When he came to tryouts in 8th grade, there was no doubt he was the best player in the gym, and in all honesty he was probably the most dominating player in the state. Going from a tall, awkward moving, layup missing athlete to the best player in the state of Minnesota in just under two years is simply remarkable.
Our team that year finished second in one state tournament and third in another. We had other talented players, including a current D-3 player in Jon Mays, but I think everyone would agree Cole carried us to those finishes. Between sixth and seventh grade this was a team that just didn't win very many games, and Cole's ridiculous improvement in two years was the biggest reason for the teams drastic improvement.
That's why when Cole graduated from high school and signed his letter of intent to play for the University of Kansas, I knew he'd succeed. Was he ready to excel as a freshman like many of the other McDonald's All-Americans? Probably not. However, I knew he'd work harder than any of them, and if he was already a McDonald's All-American it was clear any improvement was going to make him an elite player at the next level. That's precisely what happened. Cole spent most of his freshman year playing sparingly, but working his ass off everyday at practice and in the classroom. All that hard work was well worth it when Cole had a great four minute stretch against UNC in the Final Four, dominating National Player of the Year Tyler Hansborough during that time.
Most of the general public has known for some time now just how good Cole is as a basketball player, but this is a kid that is an even better person. I've never seen him treat a fan rudely, or turn down an autograph or picture request, even when all he wants to do is go home. We went to the PGA Event this summer, and after walking around for a few hours, we were on our way out and a pretty good size amount of people started asking Cole for pictures and autographs. He took the time to talk to these people, take pictures, and sign autographs, and he never seemed upset or bothered by it.
I can say with virtual certainty that the honor Cole received yesterday is as special to him and his family as the National Championship he won his freshman year was. Cole has said several times how important it is to him that he becomes the first person in his family to get his college degree, and even if he decides to leave Lawrence after this season, there's no doubt in my mind he will make time to finish his degree over the next few years.
At a time when athlete's are often thinking about the millions of dollars that they are set to make at the next level, it's refreshing to see someone I've grown to know so well over the years prove he is light years ahead of many young men his age. Cole is truly a student-athlete, and as proud as his family and friends are of his accomplishments on the court, I feel safe assuming everyone is even prouder of what he's managed to accomplish off of it and the man he's become.
Congratulations, Big Fella. Now bring home another ring, so I can steal one when you're not looking.